Book Excerpt: 'Sex: A Natural History'

Why do we find certain people and not others attractive? How do we select our mates, and why do we sometimes cheat on them? What about the battle of the sexes — are men really from Mars and women from Venus? In Sex: A Natural History, award winning science reporter Joann Rodgers explores the biology and psychology of what drives our sexual behavior. Read the introduction to Sex: A Natural History below.

'It is an old maxim of mine,' said Holmes, 'that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.' Answered Watson, 'Perhaps, you may have convinced me as to the motive, but you are yet to explain how it is done.' — Arthur Conan Doyle

People love sex. We have it every chance we get, in every position and season. We will take incredible risks, exhaust ourselves, even self-destruct to get it, do it, keep it. Once we experience its power and its pleasure — even when we only can imagine it — we seek it with the intensity of an addict after a fix. If nature were into efficient engineering of reproductive systems, interest in sex would end with a woman's last ovulation. Any self-respecting MIT graduate cum Harvard MBA would insist on a just-in-time inventory system: When you're out of eggs, you're out of sex. Instead, we, like every other living thing, are throbbing collections of protoplasm whose energies are ever in screaming search of sex. We want sex not just for reproducing, not just on purpose, but for pleasure and even just for the pleasure of its pursuit.

Consequently, if sex were a novel, it would be an Everyman story. The heroes and heroines would be every one of our genes, cells, tissues, hormones, organs, and most of all the chemistry of the brain and mind. The plot would track the quest to bring them together in harmony against all odds to merge a heavily guarded set of gametes while simultaneously bringing pleasure to participants. At the end, we would respect the characters if not altogether like them. A friend and colleague, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Jon Franklin, once said that truly heroic stories are full of "aha!" moments that show how ordinary characters resolve to imagine, then successfully execute creative, resourceful, lasting, and most of all practical solutions to fundamental, serious, life and death complications. He could have been summarizing the story of sex. There is no magical deus ex machina, no metaphysical or divine act that makes sex work. Just diligent, tenacious, randomly acquired, hard-earned tangles of internal constructions and functions, hardwired yet flexible enough in each one of us to meet unique circumstances.

Paradoxically, for most of us, how these elemental facts of life happen is as poorly understood as they are compelling. This is partly, at least, because Rube Goldberg couldn't reengineer a more clumsy, less "efficient" process. Sex in humans and other animals is an almost ludicrously complicated, infinitely resourceful, and varied network of anatomical, chemical, social, biological, and emotional signals and schemes for regenerating and perpetuating chromosomes, genes, and DNA.

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